[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for Squid Game Season 1.]
The concept of what an episode of television should be has changed wildly since the Golden Age; it’s now far from an assumption that one installment will tell a complete story. But with the advent of bingeing and streaming, we’ve now seen the core concept warped in new ways, as evidenced by the addictive Netflix thriller Squid Game. (Perhaps you’ve heard of it?)
The Korean genre hybrid series revolves around a mysterious and violent series of games that promises its players massive financial rewards, should they survive to the end — which is far easier said than done. But while the show features a fair amount of build-up to the competition beginning in earnest, Episode 4, “Stick to the Team,” is where the action is in full swing, with the players assembling into teams of 10 for a lethal game of Tug of War.
The suspense grows as we watch 10 people brutally die in the first round, with the second round featuring a team including almost all of our favorite characters up until this point, up against an all-male team that seems far more likely to win. The game ensues, both teams pulling valiantly, but just as the underdogs attempt a daring move to trip up the other side, willingly lunging towards the edge of oblivion, the episode ends.
And around the world, in a hundred languages, millions of voices scream the local equivalent of “Fuck you!”… while immediately hitting “play” on the next episode.
What’s so annoying about the ending of “Stick to the Team” is that there’s no illusion whatsoever that the story has reached a satisfying conclusion. The team has tried Oh Il-nam’s (O Yeong-su) strategy to beat the odds stacked against them, but it doesn’t work, and then Cho Sang-woo (Park Hae-soo) shouts an additional solution to trip up the other team — followed by the smash cut to black, leaving the results of this new strategy to be resolved in Episode 5, “A Fair World.”
To the show’s credit, this wasn’t an ending constructed for a show that was being released weekly. But compare this to one of the most iconic TV cliffhangers of all time (in my opinion, anyway): The ending of the Star Trek: The Next Generation Season 3 finale, “The Best of Both Worlds (Part 1).” In the episode, Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) has been kidnapped by the robotically ruthless Borg and “assimilated” into one of them; at the very end, the Borg ship hails the Enterprise, and Picard introduces himself to his former crew as “Locutus of Borg.” As far as we can tell, the beloved man himself has been lost, and when Commander Riker (Jonathan Frakes) tells Worf (Michael Dorn) to fire at the Borg cube, he does so knowing full well that this could mean death for Picard.
What works about this is that up until this point, the episode revolves around not just Picard’s abduction, but his crew’s desire to save him, especially Riker’s. While the question of “what happens next?” certainly hangs over the final moments, the emotional core of the story reaches a clear resolution: Riker, at least, has resigned himself to not being able to save his Captain and friend, especially since the fate of the Federation lies in the balance. The question of what would happen next left fans in a tizzy for the entire cruel summer that followed, but at least there was some semblance of a complete story being told.
Of course, that was in the 1990s, well before the phrase “It’s a [number of episodes here]-hour movie” became a too-often-abused showrunner interview cliche. And to be clear, the way Squid Game Episode 4 ends is effective as hell in ensuring that the viewer keeps watching. And this isn’t just de rigeur for streaming content these days, but downright essential to a show’s success, playing into our need for immediate gratification and taking full advantage of the ease involved in loading up the next episode, ensuring that the wait to find out what’s next isn’t quite so frustrating.
But still, on a narrative level, is it too much to hope that an episode might have a beginning, middle, and end? One of the big issues that streaming-era television currently faces is the loss of the concept of the episode, which — when handled well — can truly elevate a show, and showcase the power of serialized storytelling as far more than just a super-long movie. Series like BoJack Horseman, which used the episodic format in playful and also heartbreaking ways, show the power of embracing identifiable episodes as the building blocks of a complete story, not just an ongoing series of cliffhangers.
What Squid Game does, it does very effectively. But when it comes to a literal global phenomenon like this, there’s nothing wrong with asking a little more from its storytelling.
Squid Game is streaming now on Netflix.
We spoke with ‘Midnight Mass’ creator Mike Flanagan about his latest Netflix hit and what to make of that ambiguous ending.
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